Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

In 2015, the year I started logging films consistently, reading more reviews from others, and generally getting more involved with the Letterboxd community, I found myself getting stressed out and overwhelmed by the way I was processing other people's opinions. As a way of channeling my anticipation for an interesting-looking or much-hyped film, I would read a ton of reviews, a lot of which were abrasive, angry, or just assertive. I found myself getting defensive on behalf of films I hoped I would enjoy, and when I actually sat down to watch said films the criticisms would swirl around in my head, overwhelming the experience of the movie itself.

When I would try to review these films myself, things got even more complicated. Because of my low self-esteem and relative newness to film criticism compared to the reviewers I was reading, I often felt a strange complex sense of guilt if I felt more positive or even just less angry than the loudest voices criticizing a particular film. I felt the need to qualify every positive, to point out why other people's criticisms didn't resonate with me, rather than just articulating my own experience. It came to a head with multiple failed attempts to review Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, a movie I'm still not sure if I actually organically loved, or just told myself I loved because I wanted to love it and had somehow taken the many criticisms of it personally on some strange level. This was the point where I got frustrated,decided this could not go on, and made a rule.

My rule, which I have stuck to pretty consistently over the last four years, was this: in my reviews, I will not compare my opinion to anyone else's. I will not cite common complaints with the film in order to refute them. If I have problems with a film, I talk about those problems. If I love a widely-criticized film, I endeavor to just talk about why I love it, rather than why the criticisms are incorrect. This has been a pretty damn successful rule! It keeps me from getting stressed about Discourse, and greatly increased my confidence in the legitimacy of my own feelings and experiences where movies are concerned. This is what it took for the most reliably peaceful and comfortable thing in my life, watching movies and writing about them afterwards, to become actually peaceful and comfortable once again.

I don't believe I reviewed Star Wars: The Force Awakens back when it came out, also in 2015. I had already implemented my rule, but I wasn't confident in my ability to be eloquent about my individual response to that particular movie, partially because it felt like the film of 2015 for which my individual response was the most hard-won and treasured. I was working in retail at the time, so by the time the film came out I'd been inundated with Star Wars merchandise, images, music, and sound effects for months on a pretty much constant loop. Most notably, I'd spent a truly exhausting amount of time hearing the opinions of everyone around me about all things Star Wars.

Star Wars, like the act of watching movies in general, has always been a pretty reliable source of enjoyment and mental tranquility for me when it comes to viewing the films themselves. In extremely unoriginal fashion, I was introduced to them as a child, and was obsessed with all things Star Wars for a few years. By 2015, though, I hadn't seen a Star Wars movie in years and did not consider myself much of a fan...and the main reason for this was my stress and exhaustion at Star Wars Fan Discourse.

This may seem humorously mild now, but the fact that everyone with an opinion on Star Wars seemed to have strong opinions on Star Wars really took a lot of the fun out of it for me. In most cases, I find a certain level of debate and discourse only enriches a work's place in society, but years and years of arguments over Leia's metal bikini, who shot first, the merits or sins of the prequels, and countless other minutiae, had left me burned out and eager to pivot away to other forms of actually simple enjoyment. If Star Wars was contentious, what was the point?

Imagine my surprise, then, when upon its release The Force Awakens blew away all of my discourse-related anxiety with the first blast of John Williams' fanfare and the enthusiastic response the audience had to said fanfare in the screening I attended. Much has been written about The Force Awakens' shortcomings, repititions, and disappointments as a film, and I've come to agree with a lot of those opinions with subsequent viewings, but in that first viewing in the theater with my family in 2015, it was a pure experience, utterly free of the stress of contentious debate. The result? I was back into Star Wars again.

I decided I didn't care about the behemoth of ephemera both corporate and fandom-related around Star Wars-- I could do the same thing I was already doing with my reviews, and deliberately avoid engaging with the opinions of others. They'd have theirs, I'd have mine, and all could be peaceful once again. Over the next two years, I would rewatch all the previous films and glean various amounts of joy from each of them (the prequels still didn't work for me, but I'm glad I rewatched them all the same!), greeting Rogue One with a smaller but still notable degree of enthusiasm.

A broad point to make clear: I think part of the reason why I love Star Wars is because anger generally stresses me out. Of course I can get angry, and I've even had notable problems controlling said anger in the past. Anger from others, though, always causes me to mentally retreat in a pretty significant way. My energy for it is low, and as a result I do my best to be a gentle, peaceful person unless measured anger is appropriate, necessary, and productive. Of course no one can succeed at that all the time, but I'm always trying. This feels like an ethos that Star Wars broadly supports on a philosophical level, even if on a plot level it sometimes compromises on it to some degree, but few films in the series have stuck to that point of view more consistently than The Last Jedi.

With the stylings of one of my favorite directors, a poignant plotline about the inevitability of failure and the ways to come back from it, and the triumphant conclusion arrived at "not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love," it's no wonder that The Last Jedi is for me both the coziest and most invigorating Star Wars movie. I saw it on opening day with one of my very best and dearest friends, and we came out of it elated. Another pure experience. That movie was to me, the delight of Star Wars in perhaps its most unquestionable, unimpeachable form. Who could be angry at it?

As it turns out, many people. My surprise and dejection towards the Last Jedi backlash has still never really let up, but the one silver lining is of course that the loudest, rudest, and angriest detractors of the film tend to be bigots, which means that they're at least easy to write off (proponents of fascism criticizing Star Wars could not be missing the point any harder if they actively tried to). At the same time, in the two years from 2017 to 2019 a narrative of "divisiveness" has arisen around the film, and permeated across Star Wars in general, in a way that makes me deeply sad. Because I've had the most success engaging with it mainly as a personal experience rather than a social one, Star Wars has never felt divisive to me. It feels interesting, uneven, sprawling, sometimes confusing. But it's also an institution. Whether any given part of it is good or bad, it just is, and I appreciate that solidity.

I've spent most of this week reading various bits of discourse about The Rise of Skywalker online, and the thing that struck me about much of it was how angry much of it seemed to be. The bros who hated The Last Jedi are angry because they feel this film will be more of the same, some people who loved The Last Jedi accuse this film of betraying it on some fundamental level. Everyone is angry? And, if it hasn't become clear by now, I'm breaking my rule for this review. I found all this anger frankly exhausting. I don't disagree with the idea that Disney's handling of the franchise is a mess, or that JJ Abrams is not the best choice to close out the trilogy, or that this or that element is bad or a mistake or what have you. The tone of much of the criticism just seems...the opposite of peaceful. It feels inflamed in a way that makes me want to scratch at my computer screen. It's been making me tired.

I saw The Rise of Skywalker tonight with the same best friend who was by my side for The Last Jedi, and, after all the stress, and the heady mix of preemptive defensiveness and disappointment the like of which I haven't felt since 2015, imagine my surprise-- it was another pure experience, one I will treasure. It may be obvious by now that this review isn't really truly about The Rise of Skywalker, but to finally express the basic nature of my thoughts about it: there's a lot that I appreciated and even loved, a lot that I felt immediately very skeptical and critical of, and a lot of elements I have no idea what to make of at all. In short, it's a complicated mess for me. More importantly than all that, though: it was the mix of comfort and exhilaration I always look for from these films. Like the other two films in this trilogy, it felt how I want Star Wars to feel, and there was no anger in my heart (from myself or others) while I watched it in the theater. There was confusion, there was surprise, there was interest, there was disappointment, there was joy.

Since getting back from seeing this film, I've been doing a lot of processing, less around the movie itself (thoughts on my actual opinions of specific elements and the overall success of the film will have to wait for the inevitable rewatch), and more about the conversation around it and how I fit in. I decided going into the film that I had no interest in being angry about it, even if there are elements of the film to which anger is a justifiable reaction. For me, Star Wars is only worth it if I can express my position towards it peacefully, in the manner a successful Jedi (if there is such a thing, 9 films suggest possibly not?!) might. Whether it's good or bad, this is what it is. Coming out of it, I've realized also that my interest in angry discourse around this series is beyond nonexistant at this point. I need to move past it, for the sake of my own mental well-being.

This is all to say: I do not begrudge anyone their anger, disappointment, or other strong feelings. Those things are important to express, and many many people have, and will, express those strong feelings in eloquent, admirable ways. I needed to personally express, though, that I will never associate Star Wars with anger, and even at its worst I feel the need to make peace with it, and the desire to draw from it whatever strength and encouragement I can.

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